Photography changes the ways political messages are packaged

Kiku Adatto

Story By
Kiku Adatto [ BIO ]


Kiku Adatto

Kiku Adatto, scholar in residence at Harvard University’s Humanities Center, is the author of the recently released book, Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op. A scholar and commentator on American society and culture, her writings on culture, politics, and the media have appeared in the New York Times, New Republic, Forbes Media Critic, Commonwealth, and the photography journal, See.

Bookmark and Share

Kiku Adatto, author of Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op, tracks how and why politicians carefully stage photographic images.

When the photograph was invented in the 19th century, people were fascinated by the realism of the camera even as they acknowledged the artifice of the pose. Today, our sensibility has shifted. We pride ourselves on our knowledge that the camera can lie. We know that pictures are packaged, fabricated, and manipulated. Politicians and the press fixate, fret, and fight over backdrops and staging with an intensity once reserved for parsing political positions. The term word photo op has become synonymous with the word picture itself.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy mastered the new medium of television. He knew how to play to the camera in the Nixon-Kennedy debates. He displayed a quick wit, humor, and an easy repartee with reporters in his televised press conferences. Yet, his mastery of the medium still drew mostly on traditional forms of political events—speeches, rallies, and debates, and reporters did not focus on how his pictures were staged.

In 1968, in the presidential campaign between Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace, the term “photo opportunity” was used only once on the network evening newscasts during the entire general election coverage. This, despite the fact that Richard Nixon had learned from his loss of the 1960 television debate to John Kennedy the importance of television and went to great lengths to control his television image.

The one lone example of the use of the word photo opportunity came in a CBS Evening News report by John Hart. Reporting on Nixon's appearance with television star Jackie Gleason on a Florida golf course, Hart used the term with derision. "Nearly everything Nixon does these days is programmed.” Hart then described Nixon's "deliberately casual moments, moments his programmers have labelled 'photo opportunities.'"

“In 1968, I thought it was a joke," Hart recalled. "I thought if you said the campaign is calling this a 'photo opportunity,' people would laugh…. But over the years, I've seen reporters use it in a neutral sense without the irony…. And suddenly the act and what it represents is accepted." The photo-op politics so distinctive to our times were set in motion in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan and his media team, headed by Michael Deaver, mastered the art of the television photo op. So successful was the Reagan team at setting up compelling television pictures—from using the beaches at Normandy as a backdrop to showing Reagan sitting astride his horse at his ranch looking like a classic American cowboy—that subsequent presidents and presidential candidates emulated the art of stage sets, backdrops, and gripping visuals to convey their messages through pictures.

After the Reagan presidency, photo-op politics were matched by photo-op media coverage. Television reporters decided to strike back and began alerting their viewers to the contrivances and manipulations behind the images. By the 1988 presidential campaign between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, over 50 percent of the network evening news coverage was devoted to talk of photo ops, media events, sound bites, spin control, ads, and gaffes. Meanwhile, television’s tolerance for the languid pace of political speech, never great, had all but vanished. I discovered when I studied the shifting style of coverage that the average sound bite plummeted from 42.3 seconds in 1968 to only 9.3 seconds in 1988.

Today, twenty-four-hour news coverage and the Internet have heightened the demand for arresting images, which politicians seek constantly to supply. Candidates and sitting presidents know all too well that a gaffe caught on camera can be devastating fodder for ridicule in the endless video loops of cable news, YouTube, blogs, and Internet sites. Barack Obama’s White House generates a constant stream of images for Internet sites—some mythic and celebratory, showing Obama as a global leader and great orator, others backstage and informal, showing Obama preparing for a media event or hanging out with his family.

It is often said that the very act of posing makes a picture inauthentic. But simply revealing that politicians pose for pictures against flattering backdrops does not diminish the power of the image or undermine its message.

To plan or stage an event for the press does not falsify its content, as the history of press coverage of political events amply demonstrates. Before a Vietnamese Buddhist monk burned himself to death in 1963 in protest against the Diem regime, his supporters notified the Associated Press, which recorded the event in a famous photograph. Similarly, leaders of the civil rights movement learned to time their demonstrations so that television could carry their message to the nation. Communicating through images is part of modern discourse.

Today, the battle to control words and images has never been more intense. Our wired and linked world gives every citizen the opportunity to record and document official misdeeds, and this holds great democratic promise. Yet, when everyone with a cell phone is a potential member of the paparazzi, when any picture posted spontaneously among friends can become part of a permanent record, the line between public and private, the real and the fake, the person and the pose, is increasingly blurred. We are all in the picture now.

Photo ops must be judged, not on whether they are posed, but on the message they convey. Like any other picture, they can document as well as deceive.

[ TOP ]

C28233-25A, President Reagan riding his horse "El Alamein" at Rancho Del Cielo, 4/8/85
[ + ]
  • C28233-25A, President Reagan riding his horse "El Alamein" at Rancho Del Cielo, 4/8/85
President Kennedy at News Conference, 20 November 1962 (Department of State Auditorium, Washington, D. C.)
  • President Kennedy at News Conference, 20 November 1962 (Department of State Auditorium, Washington, D. C.)
President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009
President Obama conducts interviews in the Map Room 3/30/09
  • President Obama conducts interviews in the Map Room 3/30/09

Related Images

Benny Carter shaking hands with President Jimmy Carter on the White House grounds by Unidentified photographer
I Like Ike by Unidentified photographer
Hello Ronnie, Good-Bye Jimmy by Unidentified photographer
New Black Leaders: Hand Fan with Six Black and White Photo Reproductions by Unidentified photographer
Nixon Inaugural Ball by Richard K. Hofmeister
Dwight Eisenhower eating an ice cream bar by International News Photos of New York
Clinton Inauguration by Smithsonian Photographer
Untitled by Addison N. Scurlock
1997 Clinton Inaugural Ball: Vice President and Mrs. Gore Dancing by Smithsonian Photographer
John F. Kennedy and Caroline Kennedy by Richard Avedon
President Wilson at First Regularly Scheduled Airmail Service Ceremony by Unidentified photographer
Abraham Lincoln by Mathew Brady
President Franklin D. Roosevelt Deposits Letter into Highway Post Office Bus by Unidentified photographer
1989 Presidential Inauguration, George H. W. Bush, Opening Ceremonies, at Lincoln Memorial by Jeff Tinsley
U.S. National Museum Decorated for Garfield Inaugural Ball by Unidentified photographer
The President (second version) by Nancy Burson